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Committee seeks answers on NBAF lab

By Bryan Richardson

The first of three teleconferences concerning the scientific needs and options for the National Bio- and Agro-Defense Facility (NBAF) occurred Wednesday.

J. Patrick Fitch, laboratory director of the Department of Homeland Security’s National Biodefense Analysis and Countermeasures Center, spoke to a National Academy of Sciences committee about the duties of the NBACC.

The NBACC, located in Fort Detrick, Md., is the lead federal facility in conducting and facilitating the technical forensic analysis and interpretation of materials recovered following a biological attack in support of the appropriate lead federal agency.

A big feature of the NBAF is moving the research of foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) onto the mainland. All of that research currently goes to the Plum Island Animal Disease Center, which is about four miles off the east coast of Long Island, N.Y.

Fitch said the NBACC would send workers to Plum Island if a case being investigated involved FMD. “If there’s reason to believe the sample contains foot-and-mouth disease, that sample would go to Plum Island,” he said.

Fitch said his center at Fort Detrick actually has a BSL-4 facility, but half of it is currently being used for BSL-3 work until the BSL-3 space opens. “It’s likely around this time next year that we’ll have excess capacity,” he said.

Fitch said keeping up this work with Plum Island is a policy decision rather than a scientific decision. He said the NBACC’s work is driven by the lead investigating agency.

“Our capability can pretty much support anything that happens,” said Jim Swearengen, NBACC director of comparative medicine. He said the NBACC supports testing and evaluation, but is not as strong in discovery.

The NAS committee is conducting this study at the request of DHS after President Barack Obama called for a reassessment of the project. Cost appears to be the issue with the facility estimated to cost $1.14 billion; the original estimate was $650 million. Money is being withheld in Obama’s proposed fiscal year 2013 budget after Congress allocated only $50 million of the $150 million requested this fiscal year.

The options before the committee are to recommend the facility be built as it is designed, build a smaller-scale NBAF or maintain the current capabilities of the Plum Island facility.

The NAS committee is speaking with the director of the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases on Thursday afternoon. On Friday, the director of the Rocky Mountain Laboratories will speak to the committee.

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